Most Famous Queens of the Medieval Era
The middle ages (also known as the medieval era) was plagued with enough horror to last the rest of time. However, the period, which lasted from the late 5th century to the 15th, also birthed various blessings that changed the course of the world. From great poets to famous artists, these blessings also took the form of strong and intelligent queens whose noteworthy actions defied expectations and carved legacies that shaped history.
Here’s our list of the most famous medieval queens.
Note that the list is unranked.
Queen Matilda of Scotland (also called Good Queen Maud)
Queen Matilda of Scotland rose from the low-level life of a convent to the enviable position of a celebrated queen. Her journey through life was definitely not smooth sailing.
To begin with, she lost her father, Malcolm III of Scotland, and her brother, Edward, on the same day at the Battle of Alnwick in 1093. Three days later, her mother, Margaret of Wessex (later known as Saint Margaret of Scotland), died from an illness, possibly caused by grief.
In 1100, Matilda was crowned queen of England when she married Henry I of England at Westminster Abbey. Henry made his wife part of his council and included her in policy decisions. She distinguished herself brilliantly as the queen consort of England and most importantly became known for her patronage of poetry and music.
The English queen also had a deep admiration for Norman-style buildings, providing funding for the establishment of a number of monasteries, including the Holy Trinity Priory in 1108. She is also credited with the construction of an arched bridge at Stratford-le-Bow, the first arched bridge in England.
Matilda happily performed her primary dynastic duties; she begat four children, but only two – William Adelin and Empress Matilda – survived to adulthood. She helped broker a marriage agreement between her daughter Matilda and Henry V of Germany, who at the time was one of the most powerful kings in Europe. On November 25, 1120, her only son, William Adelin, drowned when the White Ship, which was carrying many nobles, sank in the English Channel on its trip from France to England.
As her husband could not have another legitimate son to succeed him, Matilda’s only daughter, Princess Matilda (later Empress Matilda of the Holy Roman Empire), was declared as heir to English throne. Upon the death of Henry I in 1135, however, Stephen of Blois, the deceased king’s nephew, succeeded the throne. This resulted in the break out of a civil war known as the Anarchy (1138-1153).
Elizabeth of York (The White Queen)
This English queen is best known as the mother of Arthur (Prince of Wales), Henry VIII of England, Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scotland, and Mary, Queen of France. Her second son, Henry VIII, is best known for his six marriages (three of which ended in annulment and two beheadings) and initiating the English Reformation (i.e. the separation of the Church of England from Rome).
Growing up in Westminster in England, Elizabeth of York’s upbringing was relatively uneventful despite the tumultuous terrain of wars that marked her childhood.
When her father Edward IV of England died in 1483, Elizabeth’s uncle, Richard Duke of Gloucester, cunningly usurped the English throne and ruled as Richard III. Gloucester had been appointed to serve as regent of Elizabeth’s younger brother, Edward V.
In an attempt to bolster his claim as the rightful king, the usurper, Richard III, declared that the marriage between his deceased brother, Edward IV, and Elizabeth Woodville was invalid. What this meant was that Elizabeth and her siblings, including Edward V, were seen as illegitimate children of Edward IV.
Elizabeth’s half-brother Sir Richard Grey and her uncle Anthony Woodville were imprisoned and later executed on the orders of Richard III. Her brothers, Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury (Duke of York), who had been imprisoned in the Tower of London, mysteriously disappeared. It was alleged that Richard III had ordered the deposed king’s execution.
A few months after Richard III’s coronation, Elizabeth Woodville formed an alliance with Henry Tudor, a descendant of Edward III. It was agreed that Henry Tudor should challenge Richard III for the throne, and once that was done, he would marry the young Elizabeth in order to enhance his claim to the English throne.
Henry Tudor and his Lancastrian army faced off against Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485. Richard fell in battle, and Henry Tudor went on to be crowned king of England, proclaiming himself as King Henry VII of England by “right of conquest.”
As promised, Henry VII married Elizabeth of York, who reigned as Queen consort from 1466 to 1503. Elizabeth was instrumental in garnering massive Yorkist support for her husband and subsequently their son, Edward IV. Her efforts went a long way in cementing the rule of the Tudor dynasty for more than a century.
Prior to her marriage to Henry VII of England, she was betrothed first to an English nobleman called George Neville, and later to Charles (later Charles VIII of France), the Dauphin of France.
She passed away on 11 February, 1503, a few days after the death of her newborn daughter, Catherine. She was 37. She was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey chapel, beside her husband, who had survived her by six years.
Did you know…?
- It is often said that the face on the Queen of Hearts on playing cards is the picture of Elizabeth of York.
- Through her second son, Henry VIII of England, she was the grandmother three English monarchs: Mary I of England (aka “Bloody Mary”), Edward VI, and Elizabeth I of England.
- Through her daughter, Mary Tudor, Queen of Scotland, she is the great-grandmother of Mary, Queen of Scots. This explains why the Scottish queen once claimed the English throne as her own, a claim which was backed by many English Catholics. In the end, Mary was captured by her English cousin, Queen Elizabeth, and subsequently beheaded in 1587 on charges of treason.
Saint Adelaide of Italy
Adelaide was the second wife of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I (also known as Otto the Great). Also known as Adelaide of Burgundy, she was a key player in the politics of Italy and Germany, displaying a great sense of charity to the underprivileged.
After her husband’s death in 973, Adelaide and her daughter-in-law, Theophano, ruled as regent for her grandson, Otto III. A chunk of Adelaide’s wealth was channeled into the services of God. She and Otto I, for example, built monasteries across Europe for studies in Christianity.
A leading figure in the political scene of 10th century Europe, Adelaide of Italy was canonized by Pope II in 1097. She is venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. Her feast day is on December 16.
Coming up next on our list is Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204). She became queen of France when her husband, Louis le Jeune (later Louis VII), succeeded his father, King Louis VI of France, in 1137. She wielded tremendous amount of influence in the king’s court.
She was born to William X, Duke of Aquitaine, and Aénor of Châtellerault, Duchess of Aquitaine. As the eldest child of her parents, she inherited her father’s vast and very wealthy territories of Aquitaine in what is today’s France. This made her one of the most sought-after brides in all of Europe.
Eleanor of Aquitaine is famous for marrying twice – first to Louis VII of France in 1137, and second to Henry II of England in 1152.
When the Muslim ruler Zengi seized the Crusader state of Edessa in 1144, Eleanor escorted her husband and his French army through Hungary and into the Balkans in order to retake Edessa. This was the mandate of the Second Crusade.
Even though Eleanor and her first husband were crowned Duchess and Duke of Aquitaine, respectively, the duchy of Aquitaine and the French crown had earlier agreed that Duchy of Aquitaine would remain independent of the king of France pending when the oldest son of the couple inherited the crowns of France and Duchy of Aquitaine.
After moving from her home in southern France to her husband’s (Louis VII) home in northern France, Eleanor positioned herself properly in the court of the French king. She remained very influential in her 15 years as Queen of France.
Her ingenuity led her to incorporate a built-in fireplace into her new home. She, thus, became the first person to do so, as she struggled to adapt to the very cold weather conditions in the north. Soon, the future queen of France’s innovation caught on with many people in France.
Eleanor was admired for her great arbitrator skills in land disagreements and for the wisdom displayed when presiding over law courts. Her political skills came very handy when securing very important trade deals with Constantinople during the Second Crusade.
Her 15-year marriage to Louis VII of France was annulled in 1152 because it failed to produce any male child. That same year, Eleanor tied the knot with her distant cousin Henry, Duke Normandy. After her second husband was crowned king of England in October 1154, Eleanor was also crowned queen of England in December 1154.
Her estranged marriage to the English king produced eight children – three daughters and five sons, including Henry the Young King, Richard I, and John. The latter two went on to be kings of England.
Eleanor’s had an estranged relationship with Henry II because she supported a rebellion mounted by her eldest son, Henry the Young King. She served as regent during Richard I’s (aka Richard the Lionheart) campaigns in the Holy Land during the Third Crusade.
Isabella of France
Popularly known as the She-Wolf of France, Isabella was the younger sister of both Blanche and Marguerite of Burgundy.
In 1308, at only 12 years old, Isabella tied the knot with King Edward II of England and served as the Queen Consort of England from 1308 to 1327. Isabella and her husband were jointly crowned as rulers of England at Westminster Abbey in 1308.
Isabella endured about 20 years of marital mistreatment and the shame of Edward’s homosexual relations. Unwilling to tolerate such dishonor, Isabella conspired with her lover, Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, to have her husband deposed in the name of her son, the would-be Edward III of England.
After the successful overthrow of Edward II, Isabella had him murdered; an act which earned her the nickname “She-Wolf of France.”
A truly cunning and beautiful woman, Isabella eventually ruled England as her son’s regent from 1327 to 1330 and made Roger one of her ministers.
When Edward III was old enough, he did away with his mother’s lover, Mortimer, by having him executed. Isabella’s regency was brought to an end, and she was placed under house arrest.
In the 2017 historical drama series, “Knightfall,” Isabella’s character is portrayed by Sabrina Bartlett.
Margaret I of Denmark
A good number of historians have opined that Margaret of Denmark was instrumental in carving out Denmark’s future in European politics.
Margaret became queen consort of Sweden when she married Swedish King Haakon VI in 1363. She served in that role until the death of her husband in 1380. From 1376 to 1387, she served as regent of Denmark during the minority years of son, Olaf II of Denmark.
As the regent of Denmark, Margaret consolidated the rebuilding of the nation; an ambitious project her father Valdemar IV had begun in the 14th century.
And upon the death of her Olaf in 1387, she inherited the throne of Denmark. She also inherited the Norwegian crown from her son.
Margaret then proceeded to unite (under the Kalmar Union) all the three Scandinavian kingdoms – Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Known in her various realms as “Lady King”, Margaret I of Denmark was described as a very competent administrator and a capable monarch whose reign was characterized by relative peace and economic prosperity. It’s not much of a surprise that many medieval era historians described her as one of the first greatest queens in Europe.
Upon her death on October 28, 1412, at the age of 52, she was succeeded by her grandnephew Eric of Pomerania, who was later crowned Eric XIII of Sweden, Eric III of Norway, and Eric VIII of Denmark.
Did you know…?
- Margaret I of Denmark, who was the youngest child of King Valdemar IV Atterdag and Helvig of Schleswig, was born in prison as her mother Helvig had been placed under house arrest by her father.
- She was six years old when she was betrothed to her husband, Haakon VI of Norway, who at the time was 18 years old.
Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians
Nicknamed the Lady of the Mercians, Aethelflaed reigned over the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia from 911 till her death in 918. She was the eldest daughter of the famous Anglo-Saxon king Alfred the Great, this Mercian queen is best known for her victory over the Vikings at the Battle of Wednesfield in August 910 A.D.
In the 880s, she was married to Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, who had accepted her father’s overlordship. The marriage was aimed at building a strong alliance between her father’s territories and Mercia. Such an alliance was needed as England had come under a series of Viking invasions. Æthelflæd’s brother, Edward the Elder (later king of the Anglo-Saxons), fought alongside Æthelred to ward off the Vikings, including properly defending Worcester.
And during the ailing years of her husband, she stepped up to the plate, effectively administering Mercia. Upon her husband’s death in 911, she assumed the throne, ruling until her death in 918.
Among other startling accomplishments of the Lady of the Mercians was her impassioned support for woman – military campaigns that were championed in her name. Similar to the defense works carried out by her husband at Worcester, the Mercian Queen is credited with shoring up the defenses of many places in England, including Runcorn, Bridgnorth, Wednesbury, Stafford, and among others.
Upon her death in 918, the Mercian crown was passed on to her daughter Ælfwynn, aka the “Second Lady of the Mercians”. Never in the early medieval era had a major British crown been passed from one woman to another woman. Sadly, Ælfwynn’s lasted for only a few weeks, as her uncle, King Edward the Elder, deposed her and then “led her” into Wessex.
Aethelflaed’s character was played by Millie Brady in the historical series, “The Last Kingdom.”
Margaret of Anjou
Contrary to the traditional role expected of a Queen Consort, Margaret was heavily involved in the politics of France and assumed administrative roles in the absence of her husband, Henry VI.
Margaret came from humble beginnings despite having royalty in her lineage. Her father René of Anjou was the brother-in-law of the king of France, Charles VII. Her mother, Isabella, was Duchess of Lorraine.
The resilient Margaret was crowned queen of France following her marriage to the extremely religious Henry VI of England in 1445. Henry’s mental illness and incompetence as king became the precursor to a dynastic feud of epic proportions that culminated in the Wars of the Roses (1455-85).
This war comprised a series of battles fought between the House of York and Lancaster for the English throne. The struggle also saw Margaret fiercely defend her son’s (Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales) succession to the throne. The Prince of Wales, Margaret’s only son, died at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471.
Having been defeated by the Yorkists at the battle, the English queen was imprisoned. Four years later, her cousin, King Louis XI of France, was able to secure her release.
Margaret of Anjou spent the remainder her latter years in France before dying in 1842, aged 52.
Margaret is believed to be the founder of the Queen’s college at the University of Cambridge.
Saint Margaret of Scotland – “The Peal of Scotland”
Born in the Kingdom of Hungary around the mid-1040s, Margaret was the daughter of Edward the Exile (also known as Edward Aetheling), son of King Edmund Ironside, and Agatha. She had two siblings – Cristina and Edgar Ætheling. The latter was elected King of England in 1066, but never got the chance to be crowned.
It’s said that her family was forced into exile after the death of her grandfather, King Edmund Ironside, and the invasion of Danish king Cnut the Great in 1016.
Her family’s return to England in 1057 was cut short as they had to flee England once again. In 1070, she tied the knot with Malcolm III of Scotland. Her marriage produced eight children: two daughters and six sons, including Edmund, Matilda of Scotland, Edgar of Scotland (reign: 1097-1107), Alexander I of Scotland (reign: 1107-1124), and David I of Scotland (reign 1142-1153). She is said to have had a tremendous amount of influence on her youngest son, David I of Scotland.
Grief struck by the deaths of her husband and eldest son Edward, which happened all on the same day at the Battle of Alnwick on 13 November 1093, Margaret died three days later, on November 16, 1093.
In 1250, she was canonized by Pope Innocent IV. Similarly, for her charity work and the pious life that she lived, the Anglican Communion venerates her as a saint. November 16 is observed as her feast day in the Catholic Church.
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